Dealing with Disappointment

“Get used to disappointment.” – Westley, The Princess Bride

I’ve been dealing with several disappointments lately, some major and some minor. Since I’m an introspective person by nature, I’ve asked myself two important questions. First, what are the causes and conditions that have given rise to disappointment? And second, what’s the skillful way through it?

The “Why” of It

The threshold question we seem to ask in the West is, “Why is this happening to me?” Luckily, I’ve learned to let that one go. When I was going through cancer treatment, well-intentioned people (usually those into the New Age movement) asked me why I thought I had cancer. I told them I hadn’t thought about it, which was true. It didn’t occur to me to ask why I had cancer any more than it had occurred to me to ask why I got to work at my dream job or be married to the perfect man.

Someone asked the Buddha whether the correct question was “Who is this I who is experiencing this disappointment?” The Buddha said that that inquiry didn’t go deep enough. The better question, taking oneself out altogether, is “What are the causes and conditions that have given rise to disappointment?”

Simply by taking the word “I” out of the question, we relax our grip on a sense of a solid, separately existing self. We are reminded of the interrelatedness of all things. Now we’re ready to take a deep dive into causes and conditions.

Let’s use a gardening analogy. There’s a beautiful orange tree in my backyard. Why is it there? Because (for the cause of) a seed was planted there. But that’s not enough. Conditions must also be right. In this case, we need the right soil composition, sunlight, and enough water. When these causes and conditions line up just so, I get to enjoy the orange tree and make fresh OJ!

So, what are the causes and conditions of this current disappointment? The causes are that plans have changed. There was and is absolutely nothing I can do about those plans being changed. That’s outside of my control. What about the conditions?

Ah, this is where it gets interesting. The conditions were that I was looking forward to those plans, I had expectations, I was attached (in the Buddhist sense of being overly attached in an unhealthy way) to those plans!

There’s nothing wrong with looking forward to fun events. It only becomes a problem when we’re so attached to the future – as I was – that we create disappointment and suffering for ourselves when plans don’t go the way we wanted them to.

Looking at my inquiry, I can clearly see that my clinging to my plans was the cause of my disappointment. It’s just like the Buddha said in the Second Noble Truth:

“Suffering, as a noble truth … is the five categories of clinging [to] objects” (Dhamma-cakka-ppavattana-sutta — SN 56.11).

The “How” of It

So now what? The logical answer seems to be letting go of my attachment and clinging to my plans. But when have emotions ever been logical? What is the skillful way through this disappointment and self-created suffering?

Acceptance, taking life as it comes. Fortunately, we Buddhists have a practice for that: equanimity meditation.

The practice goes like this. You choose three people, things, or events from your life. Once should be someone or thing you’re overly attached to. One should be something you’re don’t like. At all. And one should be something neutral, or close to neutral.

Start with the person or thing you like, and imagine them sitting on one side of you. Spend a few minutes tuning in to all the feelings you have for them. Then imagine the person or thing you don’t like on your other side. Once again, tap in to your feelings about them. Finally, place the neutral person or thing in front of you, and allow your feelings to settle. You should feel generally positive about this “neutral” person or thing, but without any emotional intensity.

Then try to feel all three at once! Take some time to see if you can balance your feelings for the two extremes to match what you feel for the central figure. You may want to remind yourself that they all have an equal right to exist, even if you enjoy being with one more than the others.

Once your feelings have leveled off, just breathe for a few minutes before ending your meditation.

In my meditation, I place my cherished plans on the side of too much clinging. I place something I absolutely do NOT want to have happen on my other side. (I don’t “catastrophize” here, picking the worst thing that could ever happen no matter how unlikely.) Then I place some other event, which would be nice but isn’t terribly exciting, in the middle. After a while, I come to realize that there are many likely potential outcomes for my particular situation, and any of them would be okay.

Wrapping It Up

In short, I am the architect of my own suffering – by clinging to my plans – and I can relieve my own suffering – by letting go through meditation practice. May all disappointments be as easily alleviated!

“I focus on spiritual wealth now, and I’m busier, more enthusiastic, and more joyful than I have ever been.”

—John Templeton

What does “spiritual wealth” mean? For me, it’s simply time to practice the Dharma by bringing it into my awareness throughout my days. It’s how I keep my mind, moment to moment. It’s remembering to be my best in any circumstance. It’s listening to my Buddha-Nature.

That’s wealth, indeed. And you have it, too.

“People know they are lacking something, they are constantly wanting some kind of spiritual guidance.”

—Douglas Hurd

When the Buddha said that life is dukkha – “unsatisfactoriness” – perhaps this is what he meant: that vague feeling that there’s something fundamental missing from our lives. For those of us who perceive that void, a spiritual practice is the most “satisfying” way to fill it.

Saturday Satori

The other morning, I was lounging in bed, savoring that sweet spot between sleep and wakefulness. And then I heard my neighbor’s wind-chimes.

Time stopped.

The universe expanded.

There were no wind-chimes to produce the sound and no “me” to hear it.

We had merged into the sound, itself. There was nothing else. In that moment, only the sound remained.

The best way I can analogize it is to compare it to the visual effect Sam Raimi made famous, the “push-pull.” (He uses a dolly to move the camera rapidly toward a person or thing, while adjusting the lens so that the subject doesn’t get larger in frame. The net effect is that it appears that the background is moving away from the subject.) Although the experience wasn’t visual. It wasn’t auditory, either, although it was triggered by an auditory stimulus.

Then I realized that “I” had attained something – a moment of full peace – and my “self” came rushing back, ending the moment.

This is what Buddhists call a “kensho” moment, a taste of satori, a foreshadowing of nirvana. This has happened to me more times than I can count over the course of my life, usually when I’m being still. While it’s nice when it’s happening, the trick is not to get attached to it.

When I start grasping and clinging to the moment, when I start wanting it to happen again, I only push it farther away. More than that, I set myself up for disappointment, as no two moments are alike. The Buddha taught that the origin of our unhappiness is wanting things to be other than as they are. Therefore, I try to accept each meditation experience, each breath, each moment, as it comes.

Once I got over congratulating myself on having had this experience, my mind settled, creating space for something new. I had three or four more kensho moments, when my thinking mind fell away and the universe opened. Each lasted for an unknown amount of time, but no more than a few minutes, then dissolved when my thoughts returned.

And that’s okay, as I need my thinking mind to navigate this human existence in the world of form. Eventually, the thought came that it was time to get up and start the day. I used my thinking mind to cook breakfast. Ah…!